1988: The Iran-Contra Scandal Trading Cards

The Iran-Contra Scandal Trading Cards (1988) by Paul Brancato and Salim Yaqub.

I’m a bit out of sequence here: These cards were released six months earlier than where I’m at in the Eclipse chronology in this blog series. I originally weren’t going to do the trading cards (as this is a blog about comics), but it seemed a shame to skip this part of Eclipse’s history, as it’s more significant than I originally thought.

So, while waiting for these cards to arrive from ebay, I’ve gotten a bit ahead of myself…

Anyway! I don’t doubt editor cat ⊕ yronwode’s political commitment, but the sheer number of these “non-sports trading cards” that Eclipse eventually released, it seems likely that there’s a substantial commercial reason for these cards to exist as well.

These are the first of these cards (and are perhaps the first time this format was used to talk about current events?), and it’s basically a box of 36 cards (which makes the “trading” bit somewhat of a misnomer), and each of these cards has a drawing of a person in the front…

… and tells the story of the person (as it pertains to the Iran-Contra scandal) on the back. The language Brancato uses is dry and the artwork is mostly very straight-forward. So what’s up with this? What’s the impetus to talk about this shitload of assholes in this format?

The cards are numbered, and reading them in sequence seems to be the intended way. They often refer back to other people we’ve read about on previous cards, but there’s also some references to “later” people.

The artwork is mostly not very imaginative, but there’s the occasional fanciful depiction, too.

Virtually all of these cards talk about a specific person: This is the only card that’s about an organisation.

This was released around the time of Brought to Light and deals with many of the same people. So one graphic novel and one set of “trading cards”: I guess it kinda makes sense as a package to spread awareness of the outrage going on.

But these cards are so dull. The artwork isn’t very exciting, and by focusing on people to this extent removes any chance of creating anything like a driving narrative or some tension to the reading experience. I guess you could have these cards out on your coffee table as a conversational piece (“Those guys are such douche canoes!” “They sure are!”), but it’s like reading a Wikipedia article spread out over 36 cards. The only thing that’s missing is the [citation needed] after every sentence and you’re there.

A single woman makes an appearance on these cards: Fawn Hall, Oliver North’s secretary.

And we’re instructed that the Iran thing “marked the downfall of [Reagan’s] popularity”. Uh-huh. Right. Sure.

So, it’s an interesting artefact. I mean, it’s interesting that it exists: It’s not interesting to read, and now I’m dreading reading the other trading card sets I bought.

But what did the critics think of it? Here’s Rich Kreiner, writing in The Comics Journal 155, five years later when the fad was over:

The primogeniture of the infocards is 1988’s IranContra Scandal set (Eclipse $8.95), written by Paul BranCato, with additional research by Leonard Rifas and art by Salim Yaqub. Here, through high crime’s reportage and misdemeanor gossip, we can relive the despicable acts of the mercifully forgotten (Fawn Hall) and the still infamous (King Fahd, the Medellin Cartel) as America’s shadow government breaks national and international law and generally offends basic human decency.

Brancato’s prose, delivered in 250 chunks, is straightforward and informative, perhaps too worldly-wise to kindle (or rekindle) legitimate outrage over crimes now pardoned, applauded, or at best, lost in ongoing labyrinthine investigations and prosecutions.

The material resists the format; with one card devoted to one person or event, there is a disproportional equivalency to all co-conspirators and conspiracies. The cards are arranged vaguely chronologically, yet threads thåt bind events and personalities early and late inevitably grow entangled. Unless one arrives with a fair and generalized perspective on the scandal, the 36 cards’ worth of information is fragmented and fractured.

Yaqub’s artwork consists for the most of flattened caricatures in sickly colors, mostly yokings of portraits and props that are suitably though superficially acid. Seldom do they vitalize their subject matter with vivid insight: Bush struggles to close a door against skeletons, Reagan, as a ventriloquist’s dummy, sits on a faceless fat cat’s lap. The visual successes suggest how much might have been accomplished with more striking portrayals: the dissembling middleman Manucher Ghorbanifar relaxing among urinals; the bulging eyes and pursed lips of William Casey emerging from a blueish background, looking for all the world like a bottom feeding fish emerging from a hole. One disturbing impression is that nonAmerican criminals often appear genuinely evil and threatening, while our own domestic thugs are generally presented as mere buffoons.

I think he means “delivered in 250 word chunks”. Because there are 36 chunks. I mean, cards.

Apparently Brancato wrote several of these trading card sets. *sigh*

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